The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants

Written by Thomas Edward McComiskey (ed.) Reviewed By Marion Taylor

The author’s stated purpose is ‘to examine the theological importance of the covenantal structure of redemptive history’. Redemptive history for McComiskey centres on three main events in OT and NT history which involved the establishment of a covenant: the promise made to Abraham, which was basically renewed in the Davidic covenant, the giving of the law at Sinai, and the institution of the promised new covenant by Jesus. In order to accomplish his stated purpose, McComiskey sets out to substantiate his basic thesis that ‘the major redemptive covenants in Scripture are structured bicovenantally’, that is to say, two types of covenants, the promissory and administrative covenants, undergird the structure of redemptive history.

The first three chapters of the book, together with the very long appendices adjoining chapter two, constitute an elaborate defence of McComiskey’s thesis and represent a little more than three-quarters of the book’s total length. In the first chapter, the various elements of the Abrahamic covenant are examined. Particular attention is given to the promise of individual and corporate offspring and the promise of land because of their debated significance within certain segments of the Christian community. In the second and third chapters, McComiskey goes on to consider the relationship between promise and covenant in the patriarchal narratives, the Mosaic legislation and the new covenant, with a view to defending his thesis regarding the bicovenantal structure of redemptive history. More particularly he suggests that ‘the people of God, from the time of Abraham on, are under two covenantal administrations: the promise-oath and the particular administrative covenant in force at the time’. By invoking a very broad definition of berit (covenant), McComiskey is able to argue that promise and covenant were intimately related from the time when the Abrahamic promise became a berit through to the covenantal formulation of the promise in both the Mosaic and new covenants. He contends further that in each period of redemptive history the promise was expressed in an ‘administrative covenant’ which functioned to define the terms of the covenant and to govern the kind of obedience required in each successive period. McComiskey names the covenant of circumcision as the first administrative covenant, the Mosaic covenant as the second and more formal administrative covenant and the new covenant as the third. Moreover, he avers that through the successive administrative covenants the terms of the promise are fleshed out in an ever fuller way, leading to the culmination of the promise in Christ. This being the case, McComiskey concludes that ‘the theology of redemption is covenant theology’.

In the chapters which follow, McComiskey explores some of the theological implications of his thesis for biblical theology. In chapter four, he looks at the redemptive relationship between the Father and the Son. He also seeks to clarify the function of promise in the history of redemption and stresses its importance in providing theological direction, stability and unity in the study of the Scriptures of the OT and NT. In chapter five, the author examines how the various administrative covenants might function as a theological category. Specifically, he proffers that the administrative covenants give shape and authority to the apparent diversity in God’s dealings with his people in the OT and NT. In this regard, he addresses the controversial issue of the promise of the land. It is McComiskey’s view that the promise of the land underwent expansion during the various periods of redemptive history, but that it was never abrogated. Hence he regards the presence of the Jewish state as ‘an earnest of the future conquest of the world by Christ’, but he also wants to speak of the spiritual aspects of the promise of land in terms of ‘the territorial landedness’ of Christians (cf. Heb. 3 and 4). In chapter six, McComiskey sets out to rethink the traditional concept of the covenant of works. Accordingly, he proposes to include the covenant of works under the general umbrella of the administrative covenants and to speak of it as ‘the Adamic administration’.

In the final chapter of the book, McComiskey explores the implications of his study on the bicovenantal structure of the Scriptures on such issues as the relationship of law and grace, the two testaments and the church of God in the past and present. In addition, he explores its impact on both preaching and day-to-day Christian living.

Thomas McComiskey’s work stands firmly in the tradition of covenant theology. Theological students and ministers familiar with exegetical studies and covenant theology will not find its specialized language and its subtle polemics with dispensationalism overbearing. Although McComiskey shows ample evidence of his ability to engage with modern biblical scholarship, his approach to the text is basically pre-critical. At the same time, he does not draw on comparative Near Eastern material on covenants as fully as one would wish. More positively, in McComiskey’s attempt to relate the notion of promise and covenant in the OT and NT through the invocation of the notion of ‘promissory’ and ‘administrative’ covenants, and his subsequent use of the bicovenantal structure as the centre for a biblical theology, he has broken fresh ground. Whether this marriage will be a lasting one is open to question, however. McComiskey’s book is stimulating reading. His attempt to relate the two testaments is to be commended, as is his refreshing attempt to explore the practical implications of covenant theology for the life of a Christian today.

Marion Taylor

Wycliffe College, Toronto